Emergency Alerts won’t match personal data with information collected during the pandemic

24 March 2023
What was claimed

Emergency Alerts will let the government know which phones are active, where they are, and will link the government to a user’s personal data through the data collected when they signed into a venue using the NHS Covid-19 app during the pandemic.

Our verdict

This is not true. The government will not be able to tell which phones are active or where they are, and the alerts do not use or collect any personal data. The NHS Covid-19 app did not share personal details, and only held venue check-in data for 21 days.

What was claimed

Phones will not work until the alert is acknowledged.

Our verdict

Calls and notifications will still come through to the phone but you have to press ‘ok’ before you can use it as usual.

Several Facebook posts claim that the government’s new emergency alert system will allow personal data to be collected, and that this will be matched with data collected when people signed into venues during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not true.

The post, which also appears on Instagram, says: “On 23rd April the government will send a ‘test’ emergency alert to all mobile phones. You won’t be able to use you phone until you acknowledge that alert.

“When you do, the government will know exactly which phones are active, where and be able to link them to you personal data through the data they collected when you use your App to sign into a pub during Covid [sic]”. 

Another post incorrectly says that the government is using the emergency alert for “data harvesting”. 

Misinformation about what data is being collected may lead to unnecessary alarm, and in this case, may cause people to opt out of the alerts (as many online have claimed they have) and therefore risk not being warned about nearby dangers in future. 

Full Fact has written before about false claims about data collection, including that the Covid-19 vaccines supposedly use microchips to harvest personal data.

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Emergency Alerts service

Emergency Alerts is a new government service to warn people via their phones or tablets if there’s a nearby “danger to life”, for example in the case of severe flooding, fire or extreme weather. 

Only emergency services and government departments, agencies and public bodies dealing with emergencies will be able to send the alerts, with advice about how to stay safe during the emergency.

The system is due to be tested across the UK on Sunday 23 April, on devices that use 4G or 5G networks. The alert will appear as a notification and loud siren-like sound for up to 10 seconds.

Personal data

The Cabinet Office has confirmed to Full Fact that the alerts will not collect personal data.  

The alerts will also not enable the government to know if phones are active or where they are. 

In an information sheet about the alerts, the government said: “The system uses the cell tower your phone is connected to. When an alert is triggered, all towers in the area will broadcast the alert. 

“To do this the Government does not need to know the specific location or personal data on your device.” 

The government website describes the alert as “one-way” and confirms that the alert does not require the government to know any individual phone numbers. 

Full Fact has also recently written about a post falsely claiming that phone companies breached GDPR by giving the government access to personal data.

Covid-19 check-in data

Since no data is collected by the Emergency Alert system, it isn’t possible for it to be matched with personal data collected during the pandemic, as the post claims. 

Besides, the NHS Covid-19 app did not share personal information, such as someone’s name and address, with local authorities. It shared the time and date an infected person visited a venue. 

Venue check-in data on the app was held for only 21 days.  

Can you use your phone?

The Facebook post also claims that you won’t be able to use your phone until the emergency alert has been acknowledged. 

The Cabinet Office confirmed the emergency alert will not prevent calls coming through or end a call in progress, and those calling a phone that has not acknowledged the alert will not be sent to voicemail. 

Notifications will still come through to the device’s home screen and will be underneath the emergency alert. However, the emergency alert will need to be acknowledged by pressing ‘ok’ before the phone can be used as usual.

Image courtesy of Tony Webster

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